U.S. bishops and Trump administration diverge over budget priorities

In this photo taken May 19, 2017, a GPO worker stacks copies of "Analytical Perspectives Budget of the U.S. Government Fiscal Year 2018" onto a pallet at the U.S. Government Publishing Office's (GPO) plant in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster) In this photo taken May 19, 2017, a GPO worker stacks copies of "Analytical Perspectives Budget of the U.S. Government Fiscal Year 2018" onto a pallet at the U.S. Government Publishing Office's (GPO) plant in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)    

In a pre-emptive rhetorical strike before the May 23 release of the Trump administration’s proposed budget, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops detailed the U.S. church’s concerns with the president’s anticipated fiscal priorities, especially as a 10 percent, $54 billion boost to the Pentagon budget appears certain to be included.

“Sharp increases in defense and immigration enforcement spending,” the bishops say, “coupled with simultaneous and severe reductions to non-defense discretionary spending, particularly to many domestic and international programs that assist the most vulnerable, would be profoundly troubling.

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“The [budget] reconciliation process,” the bishops say in a letter to both houses of Congress released on May 22, “should not be used to achieve savings through cutting health care, nutrition, income security, or other anti-poverty programs.” The budget’s moral measure will be assessed by “how well it promotes the common good of all,” the bishops write.

The budget’s moral measure will be assessed by “how well it promotes the common good of all,” the bishops write.

On May 23 Catholic Relief Services added its institutional voice to a growing Catholic chorus condemning the administration’s budget proposals. The church’s relief and development agency joined U.S. bishops in calling on Congress to reject what it termed “drastic cuts” to international assistance and to protect the nearly $60 billion in diplomacy and development funding “at a time of both unprecedented humanitarian need and real progress in the fight against extreme poverty.”

“The American people want our government to help hungry people in the midst of drought and conflict,” said Bill O’Keefe, CRS’ vice president for advocacy. “This budget falls far short of their desire that our country contributes to a better, safer world.”

While increasing defense spending and seeking new tax cuts, the president is expected to propose a renewed effort to balance the federal budget within a decade. To get there, he plans sharp reductions to social safety-net programs like food stamps and Medicaid and deep cuts to the State and Education departments and to Environmental Protection Agency budgets, among others. According to critics, the deficit reduction plan includes overly optimistic estimates of economic growth and tax revenues to reach a balanced budget.

According to the A.P., both Republicans and Democrats are lining up to oppose reductions to domestic agencies and foreign aid. Many legislators are already recoiling from a $1.7 trillion cut over the coming decade from federal entitlement programs. A 10-year, $193 billion reduction in food stamps, for example, promises to drive millions of people off the program.

The top Senate Democrat, Charles Schumer of New York, says the only good news about the budget is that it is likely to be roundly rejected by senators in both parties.

In their statement, the U.S. bishops note the U.S.C.C.B.’s long support for “the goal of reducing future unsustainable deficits that would harm all citizens, especially those who are poor.” But they argue that this goal should be achieved “through a comprehensive approach that requires shared sacrifice, including raising adequate revenues, eliminating unnecessary military and other spending, and addressing fairly the long-term costs of health insurance and retirement programs.”

They add, “A just framework for sound fiscal policy cannot rely almost exclusively on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.”

The letter was signed by Cardinal Timothy Dolan, Archbishop of New York, chair of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities; Bishop Frank J. Dewane of Venice, Fla., chair of the Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development; Bishop Oscar Cantú of Las Cruces, N.M., chair of the Committee on International Justice and Peace; Bishop George V. Murry, S.J., of Youngstown, Ohio, chair of the Committee on Catholic Education; Bishop Christopher J. Coyne, of Burlington, Vt., chair of the Committee on Communications; and Bishop Joe S. Vásquez of Austin, Texas, chair of the Committee on Migration.

The U.S. bishops also expressed concern not only with the nation’s outsized spending on defense but the impact that spending has had on geopolitical policy, especially as the budget proposes defense spending hikes directly offset by cuts to the U.S. State Department’s diplomatic and foreign aid budget.

“Accounting for about one-third of worldwide military expenditures, U.S. defense spending far exceeds that of any other nation,” the bishops point out, adding that military force should “only be employed in a just cause as a last resort within strict moral limits of proportionality, discrimination and probability of success.” They urge instead that the administration “elevate diplomacy and international development as primary tools for promoting peace, regional stability and human rights, not adopt deep cuts to these budgets.”

The U.S.C.C.B. has frequently urged robust diplomatic efforts to end longstanding conflicts around the world, especially in Syria and Iraq. “It is hard to reconcile the need for diplomacy and political solutions with significant cuts to the State Department budget,” they write.

The anticipated budget plan also drew a rebuke from the Rev. David Beckmann, president of Bread for the World, who called it “an unprecedented assault on people living in hunger and poverty.” A statement released on May 22 by the anti-hunger advocacy group notes that 20 million people, including 1.4 million children, are currently at risk of starvation in famine or near-famine conditions in Africa and the Middle East.

The budget “reverses most if not all federal efforts being made to address such social ills as homelessness, food insecurity, poverty and health care for the poor.”

Patrick Carolan, executive director of the Franciscan Action Network, also spoke out against the budget on May 23, charging that it “reverses most if not all federal efforts being made to address such social ills as homelessness, food insecurity, poverty and health care for the poor.”

“Our highest calling from God, both as a country and as people of faith, is to care for the poor, marginalized and most vulnerable. Yet the Trump administration continues to make clear that [it does] not hold this as a core value," Mr. Carolan said.

C.R.S. notes that with 65 million forcibly displaced people in the world—including more than 20 million refugees—and famine-like conditions in four countries, the proposed elimination of U.S. food aid would result in lives lost.

“People around the world look up to America because of our freedoms, our democracy, and our compassion,” Mr. O’Keefe said. “The generosity of the American people and the protection of human rights have undergirded America’s moral leadership for decades. That is what makes America great.”

The C.R.S. statement included the testimony of Mohamed Dahir, the service’s country manager for Somalia. “The people who say aid does not work should come stand in my shoes here in Somalia,” he said. “They should talk to a woman who walked with her children for days and days, trying to escape drought, only to lose some of those children along the way.

“In previous droughts, people like her found water in the major rivers, but this drought is so bad even the rivers have dried up,” Mr. Dahir said. “How can we abandon them—good, hardworking, innocent people who have done nothing wrong? Our aid not only brings them life, it brings them another commodity that is very precious in Somalia—hope.”

This article was updated on May 23, 2017 at 4:33 p.m. with additional reactions from U.S. Catholic leaders.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tom Fields
6 months ago

The, "...common good"---of all is protected by having a strong military in this very, very dangerous time---and military budgets were not rational under Obama----who had no overall strategy--as we saw in Libya, Syria, Eastern Europe, Iran---on and on. The best help for generations of poor is to reconnect with the value and dignity of work--by building up the economy---providing training, improving failing schools and reemphasizing the value and dignity of marriage----these are true Christian values and not the same tired and failed platitudes.

Chuck Kotlarz
6 months ago

History punishes the bottom ninety percent when the GOP controls the White House and Congress. Wages on average fell about two percent annually. Right-to-work states punish medían household annual income about $7,000 vs. non-right-to-work states.

Tom Fields
6 months ago

By the way---the restatement of just war theory---"last resort---proportional...." does not seem to apply to a world in constant chaos---children raped tortured anfd killed in Syria---an advancing Russia---a maniac with nuke weapons in North Korea---Iran killing throughout the Middle Eas---as they did by developing the IED's that killed Americans in Iraq--South American economies in free-fall, drug based governments in Latin America and elsewhere........

Vincent Gaglione
6 months ago

The Trump budget reflects a Republican mindset that is infected with Calvinist theology. Wealth is a reward from God for hard work and goodness; poverty is proof of God’s punishment for lack of motivation and lack of goodness. If government is to do God’s work, then reward the wealthy and chasten the poor. Ironically some of the most fervent proponents of these values now are the products of Catholic education, men like Paul Ryan and Mick Mulvaney.

I read some comments here that reflect a dark world view, as if the same kinds of evil had never before existed or persisted, as it did and does in Western Christianity (only with a veneer of culture and civilization in the minds of those who ignore the truth). But that’s how the Calvinists got started! Apparently USA Catholicism has been seriously infected by this Protestant thinking.

The Bishops got their pro-life President. Their innocuous letter decrying the current budget will be no different than all their other letters, never proclaimed or promulgated from pulpits, but a safe rebuttal to those who will say that they did nothing as the poor get further pummeled by the loss of the social safety net. The instruction and example of Pope Francis to reach out to the peripheries has not yet been absorbed into USA Catholic word or action, at least on the majority in the leadership level. The preferential option for the poor remains a far-off ideal.

Stuart Meisenzahl
6 months ago

Whoa!.....Hit them with the Calvinist cudgel;
Or "Chasten the poor"....the most demeaning epithet.
"Catholicism ....serious infected by Protestant thinking"!!!
Next we will have "Destroyer of Worlds" .
How about responses like : "Punishing Ambition"......"Cripplers of Economic Growth"........"Heedless of International Dangers and Threats"; ......"Economic Morons"
.
Let's just skip all these epithets and the slurs on how an individual fails in your eyes in the practice of his faith and focus on the reality of using government to achieve social justice goals.

Venezuela and Cuba are two excellent examples of the pursuit by government of social justice goals unmoored from the reality of economic cost: These countries have managed not to "raise up the poor" but to establish an "egalitarianism of poverty" with no Peters left to rob so that you can no longer pay the Pauls. Neither country can help or assist any other country in need because it can no longer even meet the needs of its own people who have become completely dependent on government.
In both those countries the pursuit of social justice has been intrinsically combined with the leveraging of political power to sustain a small elite ruling class. Both countries demonstrate that the government sponsorship of social justice programs create more problems than they solve. Individuals are free to ignore those social justice goals precisely because the government is now responsible.

Social Justice Warriors always point to the Nordic Countries to claim all such goals can be accomplished by government. Historically those countries have had a ethnic homgenicity and a social and political compact that supported an effective 75% + tax rate for its wide ranging social justice programs.....but as the Economist Magazine (Special Edition on Nordic Countries February 2, 2013) points out countries like Sweden discovered it just won't work over the long haul and have rapidly shrunken their programs and their taxes because it undermines their economy. From 1983 to 2013 Sweden reduced Government spending from @ 67% of its GDP to @49% of its GDP: it has converted all pensions to defined contribution from an unsustainable defined benefit model;it now provides vouchers for all private schools; it has reduced corporate taxes to 22% and the top rate for individuals has been cut from 84% to @57%; total public debt has shrunken from 70% of GDP in 1983 to 37% in 2010. A Danish Historian is quoted as saying: "We have had a most wonderful welfare state. But there is this one little problem: We can't afford it "
Since the loss of its essential ethnic homogeneity through recent open border immigration, the Nordic countries have recently redefined the qualifications for public benefits to include language requirements etc ; benefit percentage limitations for immigrants; extensions of required time to permit permanent residency; and in some cases the closing of borders( see New York Times Nov 15 , 2015.)

During its high benefit welfare years the , the personal generosity of the Nordic Countries was very low on a comparative national basis....I believe precisely because support of the poor etc in the socialist model is a government obligation not a personal one.

Bottom line: the Sermon on the Mount was preached to individuals and not to governments. Governments cannot assume those obligations and free the individual of those requirements; taxes are not a substitute for the "Widow's mite".

Consider the number of commentators to these pages who demand the Bishops speak out for Federal Social Justice Programs and their public supporters, but who also argue the Bishops should "butt out" of the abortion issue and not critique the public supporters of abortion. I would prefer they preach to the individual and not to the politicians. And don't preach about the politicians if only because they are all wolves in lambs clothing when the full spectrum of Catholic Social Teaching is taken into account.
I apologize if the concept of personal moral responsibility for social justice rather than government grants and programs seems to cross religious lines....I don't certainly want to be accused of just being some cold protestant of the transfer of personal responsibility to government.

Vincent Gaglione
6 months ago

Hello Stuart,

Listening to Mick Mulvaney yesterday, the product of Catholic schools, even a Jesuit one, talking about the Trump proposed budget, I was dumbfounded by his appeal to the fact that people on government benefit programs who could be working should be working. I don’t have a problem with that paradigm. On the other hand, who is going to hire a mature out-of-work former factory employee or an uneducated teenager, either of them who perhaps smoke too much pot or drink too much bourbon. Which gets me back to my Calvinist point….the undeserving poor have no claim on our national goodwill????

All the gibberish about failing socialist nations and overburdened Nordic nations doesn’t address my point. Do we as a nation have any responsibility to those who cannot or won’t fulfill the capitalist imperative to earn a living wage and pay your taxes? Does the Catholic pro-life position mean anything more than opposition to abortion? Is health care a right? Is sustenance a right? Can we do it in a smart and efficient way? Apparently the Trump administration thinks not, given its budget slashes to various proposed social safety net programs. Apparently Catholic Trump supporters agree, some of whom are our religious leaders, because I don’t hear it from our pulpits!

The individual imperatives of Christ’s commands, it seems to me, do not preclude their extension to the social fabric of our communities…family, neighbors, neighborhoods, localities, nations, the world. In most situations the government is the best way to accomplish it. Look at Social Security as an eminent example. (Ironically the Trump budget would slash its disability payments on the grounds some recipients could still work. I go back to my previous comments…who would hire them? And just to preclude the usual deceptions, even if Social Security cannot maintain it’s current outlays, it will still be viable for 75% of payouts in perpetuity.) When so much wealth exists, what is its function….personal individual greed? In that sense I am a socialist and I share my wealth accordingly. And yes, I would have others do so as well!

Vinny

Stuart Meisenzahl
6 months ago

Vince
My " Gibberish" about failed Socialist Countries in the Western Hemisphere and the change in the Nordic Welfare systems is meant to demonstrate that countries with huge government welfare systems that fail to consider and control the economic costs are doomed to collapse. As Margaret Thatcher so eloquently stated: "The trouble with Socialism is that sooner or later you run out of other people's money" The Venezuelan and Cuban governments failed to heed this warning ; the Nordic countries have taken heed and changed. Now the United States has the same issues before it, a fact you seem to object to thinking about.

You ask:....,"Do we as a nation have any responsibility to those who can't or won't fulfill the capitalist imperative to earn a living wage"....?

To those who " cannot......earn a living wage". I believe we owe reasonable assistance.
To those who "won't ......earn a living wage" we owe nothing!
The problem of course is determining who "cannot " and who "won't" work. The proposed budget block grants money to the States so they will determine who the "won'ts" are. Without a limit on thosefunds the States simply will not bother to do the sorting out.

Surely you must have noted that under the Obama administration that the "work requirement" of the existing welfare programs was waived and that the number of people getting benefits such as food stamps had promptly risen from @26 million to @ 42 million and that in addition there are now @14 million on Social Security disability, pushing that fund to the brink of bankruptcy.

Since you watched Nick Mulvaney I assume you heard, but have not mentioned, that he explained the so called "cuts" imposed in the proposed budget are actually not "cuts" at all, but reductions in the rate of future growth of various programs. In any event they are certainly not " slashes" to existing programs as you have characterized them.
Regarding your Jesuit Reference, I cannot help but note that all 28 Jesuit Colleges in the U.S. are now run by lay boards precisely because the Jesuits were personally so lousy at controlling the expenses necessary to run those institutions and thought they could just do what they thought was "right" and then borrow their way out of every problem or just close up shop.

You cite Social Security as an "eminent example" to demonstrate that "government....is the best way"...to accomplish social justice norms. As a fail safe to your argument, you indicate that in any event "Social Security ......will still be viable for 75% of payouts in perpetuity". To which I respond: 1) there is no money in a government Social Security Account: and 2) there are only non interest bearing IOUs in that account, payable from the General fund : and 3) the unfunded liability for Social Security is now about $24 Trillion (Social Security trustees report).
If this is an "eminent example" of an efficient government program to achieve the goals of social justice ,then let us stop all such future government programs before they start.
By way of further contrast for that eminent example of government action you should compare the total amount of your Social Security taxes and the monthly return you get with the total return that would have been available to you if that amount had been invested over the same time in a conservative investment like the S&P 500 or even 10 year US Treasury Bonds For example a median income earner starting in 1965 and retiring at age 67 receives a Social Security check of about $1350 per month with nothing left to give his heirs .
If same total amount he invested in SS had been put in 10 year US Treasury Bonds he would have created an account of $1,850,000 and provided $$3600 per month at his retirement at age 67 (at 3% withdrawal) and at death there would still be $1,850,,000 left in the account to give to his heirs. That is three times as much as Social Security would pay monthly with $1,850,000 left!

I agree that Christ's imperatives to the individual do not preclude Government implementation of programs for these purposes. But the problem I find in this approach to justify government programs is contained in your final two sentences:
" In that sense I am a socialist and I share my wealth accordingly. And yes, I would have others do so as well! "
Based on you whole argument it seems you "would have others do so as well" by requiring them to pay taxes for the government to pay for the programs you prefer.
I am reminded of the comment of that noted promoter of higher taxes, Warren Buffet. When asked why he had set up his vast wealth in a Foundation to be allocated and spent as directed by Bill Gates rather than pay the Federal inheritance tax. Warren answered that he thought Bill Gates knew better how to spend the money for good purposes than the federal government.
It seems you and Warren would both like to have your cake and eat mine as well using the fork of taxation. . One of the many benefits of not being in a Socialist country is that the individual gets to establish his own priorities rather than the government setting those for him. Our Constitution is based on just that premise.

Vincent Gaglione
6 months ago

Hello Stuart,
Your reply only further amplifies the differences in our approach to the issues. You certainly do not deny your “deserving poor” philosophical approach to dealing with those whom you would deem malingerers. I would suggest that few of them are deliberately so, but rather victims of various mental and/or emotional issues of one sort or another. More of concern, beyond that, many of them are connected to families left bereft of the means of survival. There are states in this nation that do not provide sustenance to citizens in the name of “fiscal” responsibility. There are states in this nation still being cited for discriminatory laws and policies. I am not so sanguine as you about the justice meted out by some states in this nation.

I hear a different message from Christ than you do.

And as for Social Security, the trust fund is loaded with treasury bonds, IOU’s from the US Government, apparently of which you believe the nation cannot be trusted. I do not share your mistrust. I only mistrust the Republican majority in the nation who want to undermine the Social Security program, which they opposed at its origin and which they have never failed to oppose since!

Vinny

Stuart Meisenzahl
6 months ago

Vince
Government is the most inefficient vehicle for providing for the poor and the needy than anyone could imagine as a direct consequence of governments self reinforcing political nature. Government expenditures are used to create votes. Assistance to the poor and needy is distributed based on that concept. In the interim government structural costs eat up massive amounts of money supporting a parasitic bureaucracy . The stats I provided on Social Security vs a non government scheme point out just how inefficient a government program can become.
I will take Catholic Charities any day of the week over a government program for the poor. The pity is that even Catholic Charities has become very dependent on government grants.

Charles Erlinger
6 months ago

The budget proposal brings to the fore the character of the controversy over health care in the United States. It hangs on a disagreement over rights and, if health care is a right, how much of it does a person who claims the right have a right to receive. On the other hand, if health care is not a right, what is the basis for the government being involved in its promotion, research, or provision? Does the government have an interest in the general health and welfare of the population? Or does the government's interest derive solely from the personal and party interest of politicians to gain or retain office and resultant power?

It seems that if we arrange different views of the role, not just of government, but of our society as a whole, regarding the provision of health care, we could display these views as segments on a broad spectrum ranging from the most bountiful to the least. On the end of the spectrum representing the view that health care is not a right, we can discern views either that government has no role in health care promotion, research or provision, or that government's involvement is purely a political matter, a tool to be used for advantage either by the party in power to remain in power, or by the party out of power to regain power. Implied underlying bases for this position are that health care is neither an interest nor a responsibility of the government.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there can be displayed representations of views that concede, some enthusiastically and some grudgingly, that health care is some kind of right. Whether it is a natural right or a human right or a constitutional or a legal or an asserted right is a matter of considerable dispute at this end of the spectrum. But the underlying basis for the view at this end of the spectrum seems to be that government, or at least society as a whole, has a legitimate, if not a vital, interest in public health and therefor in personal health.

Philosophically, this underlying basis rests upon recognition that the community, the society, is made up of persons, each of whom, though individual and distinct, possesses an identical, essential dignity. A society acknowledging even the most minimal interest in public health and health care assistance appears, in other words, to accept at some level of understanding, the transcendental nature of each individual human person. And while this understanding at an abstract level does not offer much of a guideline as to the social consequences for governmental or societal behavior, it seems possible to ascertain whether a society understands its legitimate interests in responding to its members' essential personhood, essential dignity, by the rights which it recognizes.

If we can ascertain whether rights are recognized we must be able to ascertain how they are recognized. By what actions can we tell how a right is recognized? By actions in the realm of justice. Justice is the bridge connecting a person' s essential dignity to the right being claimed and thence to the satisfaction of the claim. Often the satisfaction of the claim is the point of contention. In the case of health care, to those who deny the essential and identical dignity of each person, there is no right and justice does not apply. On the other hand, if a society concedes that there is a right, then claim satisfaction comes from a just allocation of that component of the common good called health care. It is through the allocation of a relevant component of the common good that any rights claim is satisfied.

It is not often that health care is talked about as a component of the common good, but what else could it be? Some have claimed that health care is not a right but an economic good, but an economic good is, itself, a component of the common good. So saying that health care is not a right is saying that health care is not a component of the common good for which all persons in a society have a right.

The remaining question is, if health care, a component of the common good, is a right, then a claim on the right is a claim on some allocation of the common good, but how much of it can be claimed in justice? On what basis is one person's claim a higher priority than another person's claim? Should a holy person's claim be settled with a more abundant allocation than that of a sinner? Should a person who drinks sugary drinks and eats cheeseburgers be allocated less of the common good than a vegetarian jogger? Alas, the answer to these questions depends entirely on the justice of the allocator, and, unfortunately, justice is a virtue, the attainment of which, being a habit, requires practice.

Eugene Fitzpatrick
6 months ago

The debate over the pros and cons of the extent of the social safety net shouldn't even begin until its recognized that the American military expenditure comes as close to pure evil as anything in the realm of human activity on the planet. The American military budget needs to diminish 75% in the next decade. It is the self-destructing rot in the American soul and anyone defending it should be dismissed as cognitively dysfunctional.

Vincent Gaglione
5 months 4 weeks ago

Too bad that we have too few Catholic religious leaders willing to suggest that perhaps, besides being cognitively dysfunctional, we are morally dysfunctional as well. The "just war" tradition has been perverted in the USA into justifying any and every war and defense expenditure that the United States has made.

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